Is a Clean Eating Challenge Really Worth It?

I'd been combing through Buzzfeed's Clean Eating Challenge for a few days, and a lot of the recipes looked easy, healthy and delicious. It was only two weeks, and I would certainly save money by cutting out alcohol and restaurants. Plus, I wanted to feel better. What did I have to lose?
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A few weeks ago, I realized that I hadn't woken up feeling "good" in a long time. As someone who prioritizes sleep, exercise and eating a healthy, balanced diet, I had gotten a little off track. I wasn't sleeping enough, I was drinking more alcohol than usual and my busy schedule gave me an excuse to grab overpriced smoothies, slices of pizza and sandwiches on my way home or to work.

There was no question that I needed to slow down, prioritize exercise, cut back on booze and start cooking more. I'd been combing through Buzzfeed's Clean Eating Challenge for a few days, and a lot of the recipes looked easy, healthy and delicious. It was only two weeks, and I would certainly save money by cutting out alcohol and restaurants. Plus, I wanted to feel better. What did I have to lose?

Well, it wasn't easy. Actually, it was a somewhat anti-social, labor-intensive and expensive two weeks. Want to know more? Read on.

First of all, what is clean eating?

"Eating clean" doesn't mean you're on a diet. It's not about counting calories or cutting carbs, it's about putting "real" food into your body. As Fitness Magazine describes it, "at its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or 'real' foods -- those that are ... minimally processed, refined and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible."

Thinks tons of vegetables, lean protein and fruit. Because Buzzfeed gives you a list of meals and snacks for two weeks, there was a calorie count on this challenge. And it was hard for me. I may be used to eating healthy food, but I'm used to eating a little more of it.

Now, let's talk money.

As I explained earlier, I expected to save money by skipping bars and restaurants for two weeks. Although I probably did end up saving some money in the end, it became clear as I piled spaghetti squash, ground turkey, salmon, chickpeas and shrimp into my Trader Joe's cart on a Sunday afternoon that I would be forking over quite a few dollars that day. My grocery bill came out to a whopping $200 dollars, and that was just for the first week. The second week I spent $150, but for someone who's used to spending 60 bucks a week at TJ's, this was a bit of a shock to my system. Not to mention my bank account.

I had to work really, really hard.

I love to cook. I find the whole process really relaxing, even in my tiny East Village kitchen, and having something delicious to eat at the end doesn't hurt. I usually spend Sunday afternoons and evenings making a few dishes that I know I can eat throughout the week, since I spend most weeknight evenings exercising or meeting up with friends. I pack a lot of snacks to eat throughout the day, so heating up my garlic kale and cashew fried rice or turkey quinoa meatballs isn't a huge deal when I get home around 9 or 10 p.m.

But while eating all things Buzzfeed, when asked, "What are you up to tonight?" my answer was, without fail, "Cooking. Maybe going for a run. If I have time." I did so much grapefruit-broiling and cauliflower rice-making that sometimes I didn't even have time to stop to do a few simple yoga poses.

I also had to use a lot of willpower. When someone brought doughnuts into the office, I had to say no. I couldn't even have a bite. When a mid-afternoon snack attack hit, I couldn't even hit up the office greek yogurt and banana supply. It wasn't part of the plan. It sucked.

My social life suffered a bit.

"Want to grab dinner?" "No. Because I have to go home and cook. And I'll be really sad watching you bite into that cheeseburger anyway."

That was my reality for two weeks. To avoid complete solitude, I managed to find some activities that my 20-something friends enjoyed that didn't involve eating and drinking. Walks and movies were my go-tos, and a few really faithful people came over to hang out with me while I cooked. That's dedication.

I spent one Friday night at a bar, but I drank seltzer water with lime. It made me sad at first, but once I started sipping on it I was okay. I was still hanging out with friends, I just wasn't drinking beer. Plus, a seltzer with lime only costs two bucks, and I was super hydrated after three of them. Totally worth it.

I felt really good.

I didn't lose weight after completing Buzzfeed's Clean Eating Challenge (nor did I expect to), but I did feel great. There's no question that cutting out sugar and alcohol -- I didn't cut out coffee, as Buzzfeed suggested, I just couldn't -- gave me a lot more energy. My sleep wasn't disrupted by a glass of wine or two, and I certainly didn't have to endure any nasty hangovers. Not eating out didn't give me the option to eat giant portions, and my sugar intake was lower than usual. I got quality sleep, and my workouts were better because my energy level was higher.

Would I do it again? Probably not. I'm already a pretty healthy person, and while I support the idea of clean eating, I'd rather come up with my own, less-expensive challenge that doesn't involve a calorie restriction. I like to eat when I'm hungry!

And while feeling great is important to me, so is eating something delicious (and possibly unhealthy) once in a while with my friends and family, and I like to spend my free time doing things I want to do, not carefully following instructions from a meal plan on my computer in an overheated kitchen... even if some of the food was delicious.

About that. I really enjoyed the chia pudding with strawberries fig and almonds, the baked eggs in garlickly collared greens and sweet potatoes and the roasted spring vegetable salad. Even if you don't have plans to take on any sort of clean eating challenge, I still suggest giving them a try.